In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, known as “the Crime Bill,” which perpetuated a narrative about crime and punishment that had a profoundly negative impact on Black and Brown communities. The bill—which was originally authored by then-Senator Joe Biden, remains the largest crime bill in history. It included funding for prisons and a large expansion of law enforcement but also stiff gang provisions and “Three Strikes” language, all of which served to actualize a prison industrial complex we generally refer to as “mass incarceration.” Today, portions of the Crime Bill, particularly its limited investment in prevention—are generally regarded as a “terrible mistake.” The Crime Bill, alongside the package of laws and political orientation that criminalized addiction (e.g., War on Drugs) and reduced government support for poor people (e.g., Welfare reform), facilitated the expansion of punishment that has produced a crisis of incarceration in this country. As the nation critically examines the effects of the Crime Bill, let’s consider some of the specific impact of the law on Black women.

The construction of new prisons: The law allocated $9.7 billion to the construction of prisons, fueling a 9% growth rate in the construction of prisons nationwide between 1994-95. Black women, alongside many of their male counterparts, were disproportionately warehoused in these facilities or were denied parole, which resulted in prison overcrowding and its related economic and health effects. Indeed, the expansion of law enforcement (more than 100,000 new police officers were hired under The Crime Bill) and prison has not necessarily made residents feel safer because incarceration and police surveillance do not necessarily reduce criminal behavior and victimization. This is important in the context of the following:

  • The lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for Black women is 1 in 19.
  • While the incarceration rate for Black women in state and federal prisons fell by nearly 31% between 2000-2009, Black women are still nearly 3 times more likely to be imprisoned than their White counterparts.
  • Four of every 10 Black women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime; and 1 in 5 Black women will experience rape at some time in her life.

Elimination of education funds for incarcerated people: A highly controversial component of the law restricted financial support for education (e.g., Pell grants) in correctional facilities. Between 1991 and 1997, approximately 40% of all inmates did not have a high school diploma or GED. A survey of five all-female jails in 1995, shortly after the Crime Bill was signed into law, found that none of the jails provided college courses to the women who were incarcerated there. A recent audit in California found that women (including 35 Black women) who had been illegally sterilized in the state’s prisons had below a high school level of reading proficiency. For females, education is an important protective factor against incarceration. In other words, the more education a woman has, the more likely she is to find employment and ultimately, steer away from the criminal justice system. Today, while the U.S. Department of Education has produced a helpful guide for supporting the educational needs of formerly incarcerated people, there is currently little consideration for the specific learning needs of incarcerated women.

According to Susan Burton, Executive Director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that provides housing and reentry services for women returning from prison, schools in correctional facilities are sometimes ill-equipped to respond to the basic needs of adult women seeking to learn during their period of incarceration.

“There is a woman in my program who was incarcerated for 30 years,” Burton told EBONY. “She was told that in order for her to get parole, she needed to reach a certain educational achievement in prison. Well, she’s deaf, and got a hearing aid from the prison, but it didn’t work! It took them 30 years to realize that she was never going to learn in prison classes that were not equipped to teach deaf women!”

Violence against women was to be prioritized…but which women?: The Crime Bill allocated more that $1.5 million to the prevention and investigation of violence against women. However, while the effort to bring attention to gender-based violence may have had some positive impact, it has been difficult to reconcile with the ever-increasing reliance on incarceration as a remedy for the nation’s social and medical problems (e.g., addiction, mental illness, physical abuse, etc.). In this climate, women like Kemba Smith—who never sold drugs herself, but who suffered from an extremely abusive relationship with a man who sold illegal drugs—were sent to prison. In her book, Poster Child, Smith writes, “He grabbed me by my collar and swung me on the floor. He punched me, threw me across the bed, and beat me until I couldn’t move…I tried to fight back. But my strength was no match for his.”

Kemba Smith was granted clemency by President Clinton in December 2000; but there are many women who are still in prison—serving life sentences for drug and other offenses—without consideration of their victimization.

“I don’t think that domestic violence is given enough value…My crime was that I chose the wrong relationship,” Smith told EBONY. “I’ve been out 14 years, but there are still so many ‘Kembas’ still trying to come home.”

Indeed, our nation incarcerates more people than anywhere else in the world, and yet, we are still struggling to make our communities safe for everyone.

Shifting the Conversation: In his remarks for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, former President Jimmy Carter stated, “I think we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to having more than 835,000 African-American men in prison.”

I like to think that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be equally appalled by the disproportionate incarceration of Black women and children. And we all should be too.

More and more policymakers, as well as the public, are beginning to understand that criminalization and incarceration are causing more harm than good. The Prison Policy Initiative has documented a recent decline in the U.S. incarceration rate—largely due to specific actions taken by states to reverse course—however, their state-by-state analysis reveals that policy choices are critical to truly recovering from our nation’s addiction to prison. Thought-leaders and criminal justice reform advocates have also provided a set of guidelines for how states can reduce their reliance on incarceration.

We have the tools. Ultimately, laws created mass incarceration and the criminalization of our social and medical problems, and laws can help us rearticulate the vision for peace and justice in our communities. We can no longer stand by and pretend that any of our communities are well served by the expansion of prisons or the instruments of criminalization affecting millions of people, including Black women and girls.

“It’s going to take the people to say no more,” said Susan Burton. “Take it to the vote. Take it to the street in an organized way to demand the restoration needed from the War on Drugs, the Welfare ban, and the Crime Bill. It’s going to take people voting for bills like Proposition 47 in California…Let the voice of the people be heard.”